Reconsidering Rear Window Ethics in TV’s First Golden Age
What we can learn about obsession, voyeurism, and coaxploitation from watching Jimmy Stewart watch TV.
It’s the year 1954 and television, an adorably pubescent medium, is on the cusp of its first Golden Age. As luminescent furnishings become a staple in most American living rooms, the content the device houses develops to accommodate more complex information, notably in the form of anthology dramas and longform suspense programs, appropriating radio’s episodic cliffhanger format to the new medium’s visual stimulus. Legal dramas like Justice and The Public Defender debut in the spring, while the more melodramatic Climax! first airs in the fall. As Britain introduces the nation’s first commercial television network with the Television Act of 1954, the UK’s most lucrative export prepares to install himself into homes across the United States with the first telecast of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955.
Hitchcock’s transition to television in the mid-’50s seems natural when looking back on his cinematic legacy as “Master of Suspense”; what stands out at this point in his career is his capacity to tell gripping stories comprised of unforeseen plot twists and brief moments of intense action, later to be shaded by technicolor terrors and a disproportionate number of platinum blonde beehives. His early protagonists possess the unlikely traits of both unassuming everymen and Bond prototypes, equally suave, sexual, and uncannily prone to becoming tied up in a dangerous mystery. As a storyteller concerned with injecting intrigue into the lives of previously uninteresting characters, Hitchcock was among the first filmmakers to include his audience of everymen and -women in his thrilling plots, echoing the way engaging radio programming briefly displaced the listener from their lives and injected them into a thrilling adventure.
Hitch’s penchant for psychological micro-thrillers and his near-future in TV became oddly homogenized in 1954 with the release of Rear Window, a film concerning the voyeuristic exploits of a wheelchair-confined James Stewart overlooking a lively Greenwich courtyard. Armed with a telephoto camera, an infinite curiosity, and two unheeded external voices of reason, L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies suffers through a New York heat wave the same way the rest of the country was beginning to learn to manage imperfect weather patterns: by idly watching. Despite the maternal advisory of his nurse, Stella, and the uxorial demands of his girlfriend, Lisa, Jeff has giddily familiarized himself with the various characters comprising the neighboring apartment block’s collage of open windows by the time his own audience is introduced to him.
What winds up being the most shocking of the film’s twists is the fact that we—Jeff included—are never displaced from the apartment. Although claustrophobia is often characteristic of the Hitch-cocktail, there’s never before been an immobilizing screen between the protagonist and the action they’re directly involved with. In the film’s reality, the immobilizing factor is accredited to Jeff’s plaster-casted leg, the result of a recent work-related accident. But over time, it’s his voyeuristic interests in the private goings-on of “Miss Torso,” “Miss Lonelyhearts,” and a certain Lars Thorwald—whose suspect behavior demands the majority of Jeff’s attention—that eclipses his interest in getting himself back on his feet and his film back in his camera.
If the image of an incapacitated sociopath absorbing himself in an unconscionable number of rectangularly-framed storylines strikes you as familiar, you may recall David Bowie’s turn as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth twenty-two years later. In Nicolas Roeg’s sci-fi film, Newton is an extraterrestrial visiting Earth to retrieve supplies in order to resuscitate his drought-stricken family back home, but winds up inebriated by our planet’s booze, women, and television. Despite their obvious incompatibility regarding genre, reverence for cinematic convention, and family-friendliness of subject matter, both films demand an exploitative—or, considering the medium’s conductor: coaxploitative—interpretation of TV-based anxieties streaming into the American home, more recently reassigned to the uncertain horrors of the Internet.
When considering the novelty of television for each story’s central figure, Thomas isn’t entirely dissimilar to Jeff: While Hitchcock’s character is clearly well aware of the respective pleasures of the flesh and the flask, the idea of engaging in multiple storylines concerning the lives of anonymous figures appears to be just as intoxicating and addictive as Newton’s first G&T. When peering out his rear window into those of his neighbors, Jeff’s able to flip through half a dozen story arcs to later discuss around his apartment’s metaphorical watercooler upon the arrival of guests, who, like any contemporary audience, express an immediate skepticism, which quickly turns to intrigue when the plot thickens.
Jeff’s lapse into voyeurism—as well as the broader Hitchcockian role of obsession—has taken on a new meaning in a post–Golden-Age-of-TV culture. We can identify his apartment’s focal point as a well-positioned plasma screen with a basic cable package, each neighboring rear window a different channel supplying just enough sex, melodrama, and suspense to captivate an audience of idle solitaries. Over time, a certain empathy develops in his character stemming from his relatability as an artist who swaps out his instrument for a gramophone—or repurposes his camera as a telescope—succumbing to the snowballing hedonism that accrues over the course of a creative hiatus. As viewers, we relate to both his understanding of characters based on a curated fraction of their existence, as well as his insatiable appetite to discover what happens next, before an external force wraps up their story.
One significant way Rear Window precedes Roeg’s film is in the way Jeff ultimately focuses on a single channel (following his initial aimless surfing—a trait preceded by his evident commitment issues with Lisa) after stumbling upon a program at a particularly interesting instant. Much like a TV audience of the late ’50s catching a glimpse of Hitchcock Presents at the episode’s climax, Jeff is enraptured by a new consequenceless voyeurism that ultimately interferes with his life—perhaps more literally than a TV audience’s proclivity to become too involved in a gripping murder mystery to participate in a nationwide mock nuclear drill. At this point, TV had become the private “rear window” families opted to look out of, turning their backs on the turbulent realities taking place outside their front doors, their only connection to the real world.
We relate to both [Jeff’s] understanding of characters based on a curated fraction of their existence, as well as his insatiable appetite to discover what happens next, before an external force wraps up their story.
Over sixty years later, television’s temptations (see: binge-watching) and unstated omnipresence (see: Netflix and chill) feel significantly more sociable, particularly for the recovering bedridden. Yet the ever-changing attitude toward TV—and the constantly developing ease of consumption—is pondered in the film in the same way it’s ignored by screen-wary parents post-1950: “In the old days, they’d put your eyes out with a red hot poker,” warns Stella in response to Jeff’s illicit surveillance.
As a precursor to the YouTube reaction video, Rear Window prophesies the coaxial casualties of regulated voyeurism in the American home—later to be amplified with the advent of the Internet and its various channels of streaming TV shows and videochat platforms—by immobilizing the film’s protagonist indefinitely as he explores the world of possibilities installed in his living room. The film closes with an image of idealized domesticity, despite the bodily irresolution evident in Jeff’s continued immobility (now donning a cast on both legs, following an encounter with his abrasive TV program): Jeff rests peacefully alongside Lisa, facing the low murmurs emitted from the rear window where everything has peacefully resolved itself. FL